Drive-in concerts gear up next week at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds, and the Steep Canyon Rangers heartily endorse them as a way to revive live music.
“That felt great, just getting together and playing with the band,” said Graham Sharp, a Greensboro native who plays banjo, writes songs and sings. “It was sooooo good right now. It was nice for it to go away a little bit, just so you could come back to it fresh.”
His group’s 13th album, “Arm in Arm,” comes out tomorrow (Oct. 16). The Grammy-winning Americana band doesn’t have any Triad drive-in concerts scheduled yet, but they have played several around their home base in the mountains.
“I feel like that’s been really beneficial for us,” Sharp said from his Asheville home. “It makes you appreciate it more, and you play a little differently. Maybe forgetting old habits or whatever and coming at it fresh.”
Woody Platt, the band’s singer and guitarist, told the Bluegrass Situation, “Instead of applause, there’s horns and windshield wipers and headlights, which was amusing.”
Like everyone else, the Rangers have had their world turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. The drive-in concerts have been one of several ways they’ve dealt with an unavoidable break from their usual steady performance schedule.
“Never in a thousand years would the band have ever taken any sort of break like this,” Sharp said. “We’ve been going for 20 years — I mean, going hard for a long time.”
He has taken creative approaches to generating income during his down time, from playing small solo shows and working on a solo album to fixing up his basement to rent on AirBnB.
“My kids are middle-school age, which has been great,” Sharp said. “Because they’re at the age where they’d be going off doing their own thing, but it’s kept us all together here a little bit.”
One song on the Rangers’ new album, “Honey on My Tongue,” is a bittersweet reflection on fatherhood anchored by Sharp’s insistent banjo picking. “You’re gonna leave,” he sings. “I better get used to that.”
“Sometime before wrote it, my daughter said I never wrote any songs for her, which is a total lie,” Sharp said. “It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. It’s a hard thing to write a wide-angle song about, so I really wanted to zoom in on some specifics — some aspects of her personality, and what I was feeling about being a father at the time.”
“Arm in Arm” is “a set of highly grown-up songs, some with storylines that you’d expect from the likes of Drive-By Truckers or Bruce Springsteen,” David Menconi wrote in the Bluegrass Situation. “It’s more loose-limbed and less traditional than past Rangers albums, with fine ensemble playing throughout.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers arrived quickly at its 13th album. (And that’s not counting the three the group has made with actor, comedian and songwriter Steve Martin.) The Rangers have released two other records in the past year alone. “North Carolina Songbook,” recorded at MerleFest in 2019, features live renditions of songs by some of the Tar Heel State’s most iconic musical figures, from Thelonious Monk to James Taylor.
“I think it was my wife’s idea,” Sharp said. “We were just sitting around one night talking about, ‘What can we do at MerleFest this year that would be different and something special? We’ve played MerleFest however many years in a row — what’s something new we could do there?’”
The Steep Canyon Rangers officially entered the Old North State pantheon themselves in 2018, when the group were inducted into the N.C. Music Hall of Fame.
The band recorded its other recent album, “Be Still Moses,” with the Asheville Symphony, reimagining and rearranging songs from previous albums. They also brought in 1990s hitmakers Boyz II Men, an R&B harmony group, to sing on the title track.
The producer of “Be Still Moses,” Michael Selverne, made a small but significant contribution to “Arm in Arm.” The Rangers played a show in Nashville with Boyz II Men in which Michael Bearden directed a small string section, just as he had on the “Be Still Moses” studio session.
“He was the musical director for Madonna, Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson and all sorts of people,” Sharp said.
The group invited Bearden and Selverne to join them in the studio the next day. When Bearden asked about a piano, Selverne turned to the recording engineer and said, “Don’t let him play one note on piano without there being a mike on,” Sharp said. The band took its place in the studio and pulled out “the simplest song we had in the quiver,” Sharp said — a high-energy number called “Take My Mind” that could be played without an elaborate arrangement. The song also features Oliver Wood of the Wood Brothers.
“We could just kind of go for it,” Sharp said. “So we did it, we just cut it on the fly with him.”
They recorded at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground studio in Nashville, producing themselves for the first time. They had worked previously with engineer and co-producer Brandon Bell at Echo Mountain Recording in Asheville. Like Echo Mountain, Southern Ground is housed in a converted church.
“It’s just full of toys, whether it was organs, amazing guitars, pianos or accordions,” Sharp said. “Part of the fun was plugging in stuff where we thought it was appropriate, using everything that was at our disposal there. Part of the challenge was exercising restraint, when needed, and not try to overstuff everything, leave some moments kind of understated.”
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